By Laura Weeks | Photos by Laura Weeks & courtesy of Jennifer Coffman and Wayne Teel

teel2Wayne Teel is trying to make his mark without leaving a footprint. Teel, a 58-year-old ISAT professor, strives to live the most sustainable life he can. He rides a scooter to work and designed his own house. He’s also responsible for building a garden on the ISAT patio and transforming the field in front of ISAT into a prairie.

“We need to use less energy,” says Teel, whose scooter gets 120 miles to the gallon. “If you’re driving to campus by yourself, that’s something that has to change. You should take the bus or carpool.”

Getting around without a car is nothing new for Teel. For four years, between 1981 and 1985, while living and working in Kenya with the Mennonite Central Committee, he traveled around on a small Honda motorcycle.

Wayne Teel“I discovered early on that the car was actually a negative symbol,” Teel says. “It established a kind of mentality [among locals] that the rich white person was coming with a car to give them material goods.”

First assigned to teach at a southern Sudan school in 1979, Teel has spent a total of nine years in Africa, including three years of dissertation research in Mozambique. During his first year in Kenya, in 1981, Teel taught farmers how to plant trees on their land and how to improve their productivity using nearby resources.

“When you went on a motorcycle or a bicycle, people didn’t assume you had anything to give them, because you couldn’t carry anything,” says Teel, who has a Ph.D. in agroforestry, soil science and international agriculture from Cornell University. “So the relationship was different. I’d go on a 300-mile trip on a motorcycle. When I pulled up to somebody’s place, they didn’t expect a handout. They expected a conversation.”

These conversations usually centered on soil and local tree species, an important aspect of the country’s ecology that unites communities and people.

“If I knew the name of one native tree in Swahili, it would lead to a very informative gesture conversation,” Teel says. “They would tell me all about it using their hands. It worked out almost as well as knowing the language.”

After his first year in Kenya, Teel immediately committed to three more. He spent this time writing a book, “A Pocket Dictionary of Trees and Seeds in Kenya,” which was distributed to farmers throughout the country. The book is now a JMU web resource, thanks to some of Teel’s ISAT students.

In Kakamega County, Teel sits with a group of students from a local high school as well as two Kenya staff members, Lerali and Patrick, after a discussion about indigenous trees.
In Kakamega County, Teel sits with a group of students from a local high school as well as two Kenya staff members, Lerali and Patrick, after a discussion about indigenous trees.

Teel stays in touch with his Kenyan friends, visiting them whenever he helps lead the study abroad field school there, which he’s done in 2009, 2011 and this summer.

Jennifer Coffman, an associate executive director of the Office of International Programs who started the Kenya study abroad trip, says trees are like Teel’s “old friends.” “He’s constantly renewed by being in Kenya and seeing how things have changed,” says Coffman, who also co-teaches a class on the geography of Africa with Teel. “He really enjoys the world around him and tries to share that with other people.”

Back at home and on campus, Teel is using local resources to make his life and JMU more sustainable. Fourteen-inch thick straw bales insulate his home, reducing heating costs to about $150 a year. He also had solar and thermal panels installed to heat water. Instead of a front yard plush with grass, he’s grown a meadow, much like the one he developed on the ISAT hill. Hidden in the meadow is his garden, a mélange of herbs, strawberries, beans, corn and sweet potatoes.

Despite valiant efforts to conserve energy, though, Teel points out that real change can’t come from just a handful of people like himself.

“We’ve been trained to be individuals, and the solution to our global problems are often corporate,” Teel says. “Unless you have institutional leadership, from the top as well as energy from the bottom, like students, things don’t change very fast.”

To help, Teel encourages his students to make sustainability a lifestyle.

“He’s really shown me the importance of sustainability,” says Collin Sumpter, an ISAT major in Teel’s senior thesis class. “Even if it looks like it’s an impossible task, sustainability is an option and we should be headed toward it.”

His students notice even the small, day-to-day ways Teel practices sustainable living.

Wayne Teel
Wayne Teel

“If he has an apple core, he makes sure he saves it for the whole day, so that when he goes up to the third floor of ISAT, he can put it in the compost bin,” says Cara DiFiore, a senior ISAT major. “It’s easy to incorporate [sustainability] into your life, as long as you make it your lifestyle.”

Sumpter and DiFiore are two of 13 students working with Teel in designing and building small stoves that produce biochar, a type of charcoal added to soil to improve water quality and increase cropland diversity in areas with severely depleted soils. Teel plans on taking the stoves to Kenya this summer.

Because the stoves produce little smoke, they can be used in Kenyan homes to safely cook and provide heat.

“Our project has had turns and twists this whole year-and-a-half we’ve been working on it, but he doesn’t make you feel pressured to always be perfect, even if there are glitches,” says DiFiore, who studied with Teel in Kenya in the summer of 2011. “It’s part of the learning experience.”

He notes that while JMU has made strides in becoming more sustainable, particularly with the renovation of Wayland Hall under President Linwood Rose, progress has become “stale.”

“We need some leadership again from the top,” says Teel, who points to President Alger or even the state. Even with a determination to live sustainably, Teel wishes he could do more.

“I would love not to use the car so much, but we make ourselves dependent, and it’s really hard to break that cycle of dependence,” Teel says.

For Teel, turning off lights and carpooling is a start, but isn’t enough.

“Often, we talk about change, and we’re not as good at it as we ought to be,” Teel says. “I always think that of myself too. There are a lot of simple ways, but the more complex thing is how do we change not only individually, but as a group?”